Moral Relativism and The Deafening Silence of Silicon Wealth

Homeless man sleeping in sleeping bag on cardboard
Homeless man sleeping in sleeping bag on cardboard

Fyodor Dostoevsky writes in his classic book, Crime and Punishment that you can judge the priorities and values of a society by how it treats it children, its elderly and inmates in its prisons. The media coverage of today's Republican and Democratic presidential primaries has preempted any thoughtful coverage of any major issue except the threat of ISIS and ad nauseum "reporting" about the comments and actions of Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

The significantly diminished coverage of Kasich, Hillary Clinton and Sanders provides a welcome relief.

With due respect to the media coverage of the ongoing presidential primaries, we believe there is one issue that best exemplifies the current values and priorities of our nation today. You see this by examining the institutional response or lack of response to the issue of homelessness by unprecedented wealth here in Silicon Valley.

Yes, I am aware of some charitable community efforts like those of Jeff Skoll, Mark Zuckerberg, Laureen Powell Jobs, The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, The David &Lucille Packard Foundation, Walter &Elise Hass Fund, Jane Kahn &Michael Bien, Judy&Josh Goldman, and the work of the Sierra Health Foundation and others.

At the end of the day, however, the work of a limited number of individuals and other charitable efforts in Silicon Valley are overshadowed by the deafening silence of most private institutions to the plight of the homeless living on the sidewalks of our streets in San Francisco and other cities and towns throughout the State of California.

During the past several months, in one or more of my public speeches to Foundations, business groups, and at colleges and universities, I speak about the issue and urgency of of our homeless. I have said that a new paradigm definition of what is unethical or immoral is needed, because the old and current definition of moral, ethical conduct and behavior no longer applies when it comes to the issue of homelessness.

Otherwise, I rhetorically ask: How is it possible, in the richest nation in the world and amidst the unprecedented wealth and technology that there are thousands of people living and sleeping on the sidewalks of San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and other places in the State of California? How is this morally and ethically permissible in 2015 and 2016?"

The creative genius of Silicon Valley has created and can continues to create and develop new "Aps" to address or serve a panoply of real or imagined individual and corporate needs. However, our collective genius still has been being and continues to be unable to develop an "Ap" responsive to and serving the needs of our homeless, an Ap to enable them to transition from our sidewalks to shelter and medical care. How is this possible?

On August 10th, 1967 at the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco at a Convention of National Association of Real Estate Brokers, in an address entitled "Transforming a Neighborhood into a Brotherhood" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

"Our nation is so rich, so affluent; we often fail to see the poor. So many white people don't see the poor because they are busy getting to the suburbs to the fresh air of the suburbs. They go into the city and work then they get on the expressway and go on back home...They've forgotten the stench of the backwaters and the ghettos of our nation and the least of these. We must all be concerned about the least of these."

"Who are the least of these? They are the thousands and millions of people living on the outskirts of hope. Who feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign? Who are the least of these?... They are those men who walk the streets in search of jobs that do not exist. Who are the least of these? There are those who have given up because so many doors have been shut in their faces. Who are the least of these? They are those men who soon become embarrassed and humiliated because they can't support their families, because they can't feed their children and educate them Out of humiliation they often desert their families and the long night of illegitimacy comes into being.

Who are the least of these? They are the brothers and sisters, who out of agony, pain and the harshness of their everyday life try to escape through dope, and alcoholism, and through prostitution. As I walk through the ghettos and look at my brothers who may be dope addicts and who be alcoholics because of this system, I stand there, not in arrogance before them, but I look at them and say, but for the grace of God, there go I."

Accordingly, as we began thinking about our discussion here and remembering Dr. King's speech, I was taken aback when I read that John Hennessy, the former recent President of Stanford University and Phillip Knight of Nike have jointly created and funded with $760 million the "Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program". They will provide graduate-level scholarships "to prepare a new generation of global leaders with the skills to address the increasingly complex challenges facing the world".

I checked to see whether either Phillip Knight or Stanford have made any significant contribution of their wealth to address the homeless. I did not find any. The" moral relativity", deafening silence, and inaction of the "genius" of Silicon Valley appears to continue.

In contrast, Civil Rights leaders like my friend Rev Jesse Jackson, in genuine sincerity, is seeking to get one or more Tech companies in Silicon Valley to increase employment opportunities for qualified African-Americans in the computer programming, code, and other engineering degree based jobs.

With all due respect to these efforts, increasing employment of African-Americans in high paid tech jobs at Apple, Cisco, Intel, Samsung, SAS, Hewlett Packard, etc. by 5-10%, is comparatively irrelevant to effecting any near term material change in the condition of the homeless here in Silicon, many of whom are African-Americans and military veterans.

Yes, I recognize new employment is not "irrelevant" to the person who gets hired for a job that he or she otherwise would not have had.

Nevertheless, I still contend: a new definitional paradigm is needed to determine what is regarded as "unethical" and "immoral" in Silicon Valley. Is the continued deafening silence of great wealth with respect to our homeless, only a 21st century version of our "Rome" and "Nero's fiddling" 24/7, in the presence of homeless people living and sleeping on our sidewalks